Wyclef Jean has sold millions of records as a solo artist and as a founding member of the hip-hop group the Fugees. Still, few in the mainly Latin crowd seemed to recognize the Grammy-winner when he leaped onto the stage at a recent sold-out concert.
That is, until Colombian superstar Shakira shimmied onto the floor, and the two traded Spanish and English rhymes from her smash hit “Hips Don’t Lie.” At that point, the crowd roared for both.
A few years ago, the big Latin crossover involved Spanish-speaking performers making it big by singing in English — including sensations like Ricky Martin, Shakira and Marc Anthony. Nowadays, stars like Jean, Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez are kicking it the other way — singing and rapping in Spanish for the hemisphere’s Hispanic market.
It’s not hard to see why.
32 million Spanish-speakers in U.S.
Salsa, boleros, cumbia, alt-rock, reggaeton — Latin music offers a little something for everyone. Then there’s the state of the declining music industry. As more fans illegally download music and selectively purchase singles instead of entire albums, record labels are desperate for new listeners. The estimated 32 million Spanish-speakers in the United States, not to mention another roughly 400 million Spanish-speakers in Spain and Latin America, are markets screaming to be tapped.
“It’s hard to ignore when 11 million people watch the Latin Grammys,” said Jose Cancela, author of the book, “The Power of Business en Espanol,” and a 25-year veteran of Spanish-language radio and television.
“What more and more artists are seeing is that the growth of Spanish-language media, especially in the top 25 markets in the country, is having real impact on airplay and on viewership,” he added.
“A lot of my Latin fans said, ‘Oh, you should do more songs in Spanish,’ ” Beyonce said during a recent news conference in her hometown of Houston.
Beyonce took them to heart, recording Spanish versions of hits like “Irreplaceable” and “Listen” from the film “Dreamgirls.”
J. Lo en Espanol on ‘American Idol’
Jennifer Lopez, who was born in New York's the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, also just released her first complete Spanish album, “Como Ama una Mujer,” or “How a Woman Loves.” Lopez has said she did her first demo in Spanish, but back then the labels weren’t interested. Now she’ll likely sing one of her Spanish songs when she appears in an upcoming episode of TV’s “American Idol.”
Even kiddie crooner Dan Zanes, who happily acknowledges “I am such an Anglo,” is working on an entire CD in Spanish due early next year.
Pop musicians have recorded songs in other languages before, but in recent years the number of top U.S. artists rolling that Spanish “r” seems to keep growing.
The benefits go both ways. Jean’s duet with Shakira, “Hips Don’t Lie,” became a global hit and boosted sales of her English-language album “Oral Fixation, Vol. 2.” Meanwhile, Beyonce recently recorded a duet with Mexico’s Alejandro Fernandez for a telenovela version of “Zorro.”
Miami-based music producer Rudy Perez, the go-to man for Spanish lyrics, adds that even second- and third-generation Hispanic fans like the idea that artists are reaching out to them, validating their heritage by singing in their parents’ or grandparents’ language.
Phonetic Spanish lyrics for artists
But interest in Spanish is personal for some artists, he says.
Perez started the crossover work with Christian music star Jaci Velasquez, who is Mexican-American, then went on to work with Christina Aguilera for her 2000 album, “Mi Reflejo.” Neither woman spoke much Spanish — Aguilera’s father is from Ecuador, but she was raised mostly by her German-American mother — and both wanted to get in touch with their roots, Perez said.
“Like a lot of kids in the U.S., they might live Latin but speak English,” he said.
Perez often writes out the Spanish lyrics phonetically for the artists. He spends hours playing with words to make each line end with a sound similar to the English version to keep the music familiar.
Aguilera’s Spanish was so convincing that Perez had to go out and explain to Spanish-language media before her news conferences that she wasn’t fluent in the language.
“I really wanted to respect the language,” she said.
Zanes also said he’s interested in learning more about the culture behind the music.
“It’s such a big part of America and New York,” said the Brooklyn hipster. “Not speaking the language, I felt like I was missing out on a lot fun.”
A global push
U.S. stars aren’t the only ones crossing over. Canadian chanteuse Nelly Furtado, who is of Portuguese descent, had a hit song with Colombian rocker Juanes a few years back; she has Spanish cuts on her latest album “Loose,” including one with Juanes. Czech singer Marta Topferova has received rave reviews for her Latin boleros. And the Japanese salsa group, Orchestra de la Luz, has played worldwide for more than a decade.
So far, the Spanish-language forays seem well-received by listeners. Vanessa Garcia, who hooked her Venezuelan-born mother on Aguilera after playing the singer’s Spanish album, said she’d probably pick up Beyonce’s album.
“Beyonce in Spanish is a little weird,” said the 18-year-old fan. “But her accent’s good.”